The murder of 12-year-old Silvana Tsegai in south Tel Aviv has shaken up the Eritrean asylum-seeker community in Israel, but it is far from the first case of a woman being murdered in that community. In November 2010, a 30-year-old pregnant woman was murdered by her partner. In July 2012, 18-year-old Natznet Michael was murdered by her Eritrean partner and in September 2015, a 29-year-old woman was murdered by her 33-year-old partner, Dasbella Havos.
The asylum-seeker community in Israel is in a state of crisis and its women and teenage girls are paying an increasingly heavy price. Women are a minority among the refugees – there are only 7,000 female asylum seekers in Israel. Thirty percent of these were victims of abuse and torture in the Sinai desert, and many of them have suffered sexual harassment at work but don’t report it. Without access to the police and out of fear of how the authorities will relate to them, these women and girls don’t report the domestic violence they suffer. The handful who do report it do not get protection from the police and say that their partners ignore restraining orders fearlessly. Battered women’s shelters are not set up to accept asylum seekers, even as the demand increases.
In December 2012 I interviewed Sanait Kidana, the founder of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Kidana has since emigrated to a Western country. We met following the murder of six Eritrean women by partners or family members between 2010 and 2012.
“I couldn't listen to any more stories about murdered women, domestic violence, threats and harassment,” Kidana said, explaining why she had set up the center, which provides women with vocational training, family counseling and enrichment programs. “No official Israeli institution keeps records but we are overwhelmed by women coming to us for help. I estimate that 70 percent of the women in the Eritrean community suffer from violence - from being locked up at home to economic, sexual, verbal and physical violence.” Her successor at the center confirms that these problems persist today.
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The controversial law requiring asylum seekers working in Israel to deposit 20 percent of their salaries into a closed account they can only access when they leave the country forced many asylum seekers into poverty and pushed many women into prostitution. Only a month ago it was decided to exclude women from this law, but the damage had already been done.
The scope of the prostitution was documented in a recent government report commissioned by the Social Affairs Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the interministerial anti-trafficking coordinator. An investigative report by Haaretz on the increasing number of asylum seekers forced into prostitution is now part of the government documentation. In 2014, aid organizations found that some 40 asylum seekers were caught up in the cycle of prostitution, while today there are 400 documented cases. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite the understanding of their situation, there is no rehabilitation available to these asylum-seeker women. Human rights in Israel are for Jewish women only.
Asylum seekers in Israel are subjected to systematic institutional abuse aimed at breaking their spirit. Israel could have absorbed the members of the community with dignity, enabled them to integrate, provided basic social benefits and respectful access to welfare, education and health institutions. The government’s decision to play with the feelings of an entire population is leaving its signs on the most vulnerable among them – the women.
“The murder of the girl [Tsegai] by the mother’s partner is a sad and shocking case; we condemn all violence in our community and hope that the murderer will be caught today,” says Eden Tesfamariam, the new director of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. “That sweet girl was magic, she was always friendly and was always happy and optimistic. This is a great loss for all of us.”
“Life in Israel is not easy for us,” says Tesfamariam. “We suffered a great deal during the journey and here in Israel. Because we were not accepted as refugees, we were left to cope alone. Many of the men who came to Israel experienced many traumas and never underwent any rehabilitation process, and if that weren’t enough, the government has exerted heavy pressure on us from the moment we arrived and did everything in its power to make us feel undesirable, with laws that restrict our freedom, that sink us into poverty with the deposit law. There is a great deal of frustration at the lack of an orderly policy regarding our asylum requests."
“Unfortunately, more than a few men turn to alcohol, which in many cases leads to violence, and the first ones hurt are us women, who must cope with all this at home. Many times we are left with nowhere to turn and are forced to again cope alone. Please stop exerting this pressure on us and instead institute an orderly policy so that we can make use of our rights as women, so that we can get proper solutions in the realms of welfare and health, to prevent other painful cases like this one,” she said.